Niches and theology

Science & Theology News has an article on "evolutionism" that is replete with historical errors and other misdemeanors. But it indicates some nuances of the evolutionary biological debates are starting to have some impact.

The author, Gennaro Auletta, is a philosophy professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. One may applaud his attempt to come to terms with biology, but he repeats many of the usual theological canards about evolution. Let's have a look at his article, shall we?

The distinction between evolution and evolutionism is of extreme relevance. Michael Ruse's recent The Evolution-Creation Struggle sharply distinguishes between the fact of evolution by natural selection, including the theoretical explanations for this fact, and evolutionism as a naturalistic worldview with the characteristics of a secular religion. To recognize the important distinction between these points, it is necessary to understand how evolutionary theory developed. Evolution doesn't necessarily imply a mechanistic metaphysics, and the integration of legitimate, proven science into religion will break down the barriers between science and religion.

Here we see what could be a good distinction - I know Ruse makes it - between a theory in science and a way of looking at the world, but it is not true that evolution is the worldview used by "evolutionists". Instead their worldview is usually progressionism, or nationalism, or whatever itis that evolution is turned to service. Everybody from atheists to Catholics (Teilhard, for instance) has made evolution do duty to support a prior worldview. Setting evolution up as a worldview is misleading, to say the least. If there are worldviews that rely on things changing, and there have been since Heraclitus (who, I am led to believe, thought that there was something unchanging that preserved identity over change), it is not because evolution occurs.

And the mechanism point is a red herring. All scientific theories are mechanistic in some respect - that is, they have a causal mechanism that explains the phenomena. Is this metaphysics? Well I think it is, in an impoverished sense - science relies on there being mechanisms that occur in the studied domains of phenomena, or there's really no point in doing science.

Catholic doctrine has a long tradition of accepting "proven" science, but they always seem to be a few steps behind the game. Science is not about proving theories, but about testing them, and if religion needs to wait for proof, then it will always be a follower of science.

And natural selection is only one part, and some might say the least important part, of the evolutionary process. R. A. Fisher once began his groundbreaking book The genetical theory of natural selection with the sentence "Evolution is not natural selection". This is true. Selection is a mechanism of evolution, but not the only one, while evolution in general is the change of living forms over time, causing diversity.

Almost as soon as Darwin's theory of evolution was formulated, a number of thinkers saw it as an ideological manifesto that could be used to attack religion as well as a number of moral and philosophical tenets of the day.

It is not by chance that such a doctrine was eventually incorporated into the official propaganda machine of communist countries. It is also not uncommon that novel scientific ideas are taken by some as ideological weapons. But Darwin's formulation of his own theory was far more complex and sophisticated than these later developments would lead us to believe.

Nonetheless, theoretical development proceeded. In the first half of the 20th century, following Mendel's contribution to the understanding of inheritance, came a Neo-Darwinian formulation: Random genetic mutations are coupled with blind selection by the environment of those individuals most fit to survive -- notwithstanding the fact that the genetic heritage is, in general, well-conserved.

Darwin's theory of evolution was initially not seen as an attack on moral standards by its adherents. It was the conservative religious who saw it that way. This has much deeper roots than Darwin. Throughout the western tradition, the villain was Epicurus, who saw the world acting on the basis of the properties of its particles, rather than being directed by a or the god[s]. Christian, Jewish and Islamic theologians have always attacked Epicurus, who turns out to be so much more right about the world than any of them. Darwinism was equated with Epicureanism almost immediately.

But "Darwinians" (a term that has almost no content) like Huxley thought that moral values should be preserved despite the nature of the world. Moral values were not considered to be otiose by the "Darwinians", only by those who thought that without a guiding hand or moral authority, there were no moral values, which says far more about them than about the theory of evolution.

And in which communist country was evolution made part of the official proaganda machinery? Stalin promoted Michurinism, which was simply the neo-Lamarckian doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characters (about which more in a minute) given a dialectical spin. No communist nations made evolution the foundation for, or justification of, their ideology.

Toward the end of the 19th century, psychologist James Mark Baldwin postulated that, at least in humans, there are other forms of selection. He stressed, for example, the role of social and cultural selection, which provides a wider framework for adaptation. According to Baldwin, evolution goes in the direction of an increasing plasticity -- especially in the direction of increasing intelligence, the utility of which is so great that it outweighs all other biological characteristics. It is only by an application of natural selection in the form of survival of overproduced functions that intelligence and human consciousness affect selective adjustments. This form of selection is called functional selection.

The problem raised by Baldwin was already well-known: Single mutations are maladaptive. For instance, in order for wings to function as flight tools, several different genetic variations need to be accumulated in a coordinated way. This is where functional selection comes into the picture as an integration of initially random variations. It gives to the organism both the time and the conditions necessary for the accumulation of genetic variation. Another important bit of supporting evidence for this proposed mechanism -- called "the Baldwin effect" -- is demonstrated by how human populations that have herded bovines longer than other populations have developed a specific lactose tolerance that is difficult to explain in terms of random variation.

Baldwin is one of those thinkers that everybody tries to interpret their own way. In this case, this is as bad a misrepresentationof Baldwin's ideas as I have found. What he actually said has little to do with the evolution of intelligence, but rather the ability of individual organisms to adapt to their circumstances in their lifetime, which makes it possible for natural selection to select for variants that will make that individual learning cost less, thus incorporating over phylogenetic time what individuals had to learn over their lifetime. Baldwin called this "organic selection" - I don't know where Auletta got "functional selection" from.

And it is simply false that individual single mutations are deleterious. The vast majority of them are nearly neutral in their effect. These neutral mutations persist for long periods until they can be utilised by selection for other purposes. Moreover, the Baldwin effect says nothing about mutation - the term wasn't even invented until several years later, and even then it was in the context of the evolutionarily as-yet unreconciled Mendelian genetics. This is just bad history.

Significantly, the Baldwin effect also encompasses feedback by living organisms on their environment. This feedback can be thought of as "niche construction," a concept that has raised a good deal of recent interest.

Niche construction posits that there exists no living organism that does not transform its environment and thus indirectly controls its own evolution. In other words, natural selection provides the general framework by which new adaptive solutions can emerge, but these solutions are the result of the interplay between environmental pressures and the transformation of the environment by organisms themselves. In this way, not only do organisms adapt to their environments, but they also carve some resources from those environments into functional commodities that, in turn, stabilize certain behaviors. This is why we have "exaptation," or the fixation of structures that originally had a less specialized origin -- a general form of adaptation discovered relatively late.

Here he is correct - at least that niche construction has had considerable interest over the past little while, since it was proposed by Odling-Smee and his collaborators Laland and Feldman. Here the view is indeed, as it was with Baldwin, that the organism has feedback effects on the selective environment. This is a major shift in the way we view evolution, in that we now see that (or at last give recognition that) the environment that imposes selection pressures is itself shaped by the behaviours of the organisms themselves.

Is it new? No, I don't think so. Darwin himself was aware of the "tangled bank" of ecology and the interrelations between organisms and their environment. But it did get lost for a while in the models of the synthesis. Many people, from Lewontin to Dawkins to Hamilton have noted this interplay. Baldwin is often called a "Lamarckian" by Mayr and the synthetists, which is ironic considering he thought he was arguing a case against them.

A philosophical consideration should be made here. The American philosopher Charles S. Peirce pointed out that even when, in some dynamical process, the initial conditions are completely random, regularity quickly emerges so that the further evolution of the system is no longer driven solely by random influences.

This can be seen by considering a game of chance. Suppose 1 million players are each provided with one dollar. It is supposed that the players place $1 bets independently of one another. In the first run, one-half will lose $1 -- and abandon the game -- while the other half will obtain an additional dollar. In the second run, 250,000 players, having lost, will remain with only $1; while 250,000 players, having won, will now have $3. In this way, after the 16th throw, we have 15 players with $17, 229 players with $15, 1,587 players with $13, 6,714 with $11, 19,226 with $9, 38,879 with $7, 55,542 with $5, 52,369 with $3, and 21,821 players with $1 apiece. The tendency for the money to accumulate in only a few hands increases with each throw, showing that in this selection game order emerges from chance. It is also true that we still suppose some rule to be in effect, so a more complete statement would be that order emerges from chance in addition to rules. Nothing can emerge from absolutely pure chance.

This demonstrates a very important characteristic of living beings, which is primarily effective at the ontogenetic level, but whose effects also strongly determine phylogenesis, or the evolutionary history of a species. Namely, organisms display an intrinsic tendency to determine their own development by themselves contributing to the conditions and occasions of further progress. The outcomes that provoke our astonishment may depend on the complex conditions the evolutionary process spawns and encounters. The lack of definite preplanned or predesigned sets of outcomes does not render this dynamic any less directional, or even any less teleological.

And here we encounter the Epicurean bugaboo of theology - chance. In two paragraphs, Auletta makes the claim that chance cannot make any order, and then gives an example of how it does exactly that. But that's not the problem - it is that he seems to imply that Darwinian evolution is pure chance. This is plainly false - selection is the interplay of chance (in the sense of undirected) variation and environmental factors. What happens to work is retained and passed on to future iterations of the population.

Why is chance such a problem for theologians? Apart from the obvious problem of God's foreknowledge, it appears to indicate that the very idea of a providential hand is unnecessary, and that is deeply troubling to them. But simply asserting that either the Baldwin effect or niche construction somehow eliminates chance from evolution is stupid. Both have exactly as much to do with chance as selection does. The difference in both cases is that in the Baldwin effect, chance follows the purposive behaviour of the organisms themselves, while in niche construction, chance affects what organisms do both before and after selection.

Using evolution as evidence for blind chance is ideology, not pure science. Such a claim is evolutionism, and not the serious theory of evolution. We need to define an appropriate fi eld where science, philosophy and religion can frankly and openly interact. By better understanding biology, we can take a step toward this goal.

And here's the payoff of the series of misunderstandings. We need, it seems, a role for religion in biology. Because, no doubt, biology has been having such a hard time without it. Evolution has not been an argument for blind chance, only for the blindness of variation. There's nothing ideological about that. Indeed, arguing that variation is not blind is the ideology. There are no plausible mechanisms, nor any evidence in favour of, the idea that variation, which fuels evolution, is not the results of undirected chance happenings, in the sense that they are not correlated with the needs or aims of organisms. To assert this is ideological: it's to assert that the basis for all science since Bacon is false. And we need to do that why? Because of the failures of biology and the successes of teleological religious thinking? Hardly. The only reason is to provide some breathing room for religion, and there's no scientific rationale there at all.

I think that those who are religious ought to be free to interpolate their beliefs and their science. There are many ways in which religion can be made compatible with science, good science, not the "sound science" of ideologies. One of the most important is to stop religion from making factual claims about the world. Another is to think deeply about the core doctrines of the religion. For example, the neo-Thomists thought long and hard about the doctrine of creation, concluding that creation meant that God maintained the nature of the created world in every event. Hence, what science studies is the natures of things as upheld by God. This is a respectable doctrine, but it's hard to sell to the ignorant and the politically motivated. Nobody can be marked as orthodox or heterodox by a view of God as the "ground of being". So they keep returning to the trough of God as the Divine Meddler, as the cause of only some events, rather than all of them. That is a doctrine worth dying for. Literally.

I applaud the Roman Catholic church, and the other churches who attempt to engage with science. But I deplore the fact that they simply cannot either understand the science or get away from the long standing prejudices that make science subordinate to theology. Theology simply doesn't have the track record to justify this.

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The fact that Auletta brought up Peirce is interesting. The example of the betting game is from his essay, "Design and Chance (1883/1884)," which signified a shift in Peirce's thinking towards what would become his theory of agapasm. Auletta is simply following Peirce's misreading of Darwin here. Peirce defines three forms of evolution in his essay, "Evolutionary Love (1893)": tychism, anancasm, and agapasm. Tychism is "evolution by fortuitous variation"; he also equates it with "absolute chance" and spontaneity. This is the type of evolution he ascribes to Darwin.

For those curious, anancasm is "evolution by mechanical necessity" and agapasm is "evolution by creative love".

Peirce makes an interesting move with his idea of "creative love," which allows for what one might call an 'open teleology' (Carl Hausman offers a nice analysis of the distinction between the telos of eros and that of agape in his book, Charles S. Peirce's Evolutionary Philosophy (1993)). This idea of agapasm is like a silver bullet for religious people who want to merge evolutionary theory (or at least a misreading of it) with their religious beliefs. By pulling Peirce into their camp, teleology is preserved but not fixed (they don't want to fall into anancasm!); it becomes open-ended. There are moments of spontaneity followed by order, which is then followed by moments of sponaneity... etc.

On one hand I am glad to see someone reading something of Peirce apart from his 'semiotics'; however, I am a bit leery of someone bringing Peirce into a sweeping explanation of the kind Auletta is attempting here. Peirce is being used here as capital, I take it. I don't know if he really is going to be considered to have capital within the realm of evolution, though.

"Why is chance such a problem for theologians?"

As Rorty pointed out, when people want to hear truths, they want truths to be redemptive. People want truths to be narrative in character, not the mere stamp-collecting of disjointed facts. (Armchair ev-psych: I think the cognitive capacities for explanation along the lines of N-D models are probably parasitic on our capacities for agent-centered narratives.)

Religionism is just the insistence that all truths are, ultimately, on some level, narrative truths. Lawlike explanations can (only just) be accommodated into this way of thinking because there is still a predictability to them, and they leave open the possibility of some sort of agent-governance, of a "law-giver" or "law-sustainer". But explanations invoking chance -- even though in one sense they are exactly as blind, pitiless, and indifferent as law-explanations -- simply cannot be accommodated into the narrative framework that the religious mindset demands. AIUI Epicurus and Democritus, lacking any detailed knowledge of physics and chemistry, and thus lacking any way to talk about chemical laws in any robust sense, really did end up having to talk about "random collisions of atoms" to explain life, the universe, and everything.

I don't think religionism (in the sense of one that actually makes empirical, truth-functional claims about the world) will ever fully sign on to evolution's lawlike aspects like selection because the source of novelty will always be random chance, which can only be compatible with a cognitivist religious framework by saying that it's "not really random". Or, in other words, that the universe is not as our best experiments tell us that it is.

By Andrew Lee (not verified) on 04 Aug 2006 #permalink

Just a footnote on a brilliant exposition. Contrary to Wilkins' comment, I think evolution IS a master idea in science generally, having massive applications far removed from biological evolution. Without this larger understanding of evolution cosmology, for example, would still simply be counting stars.

By Dwight Brown (not verified) on 04 Aug 2006 #permalink

Dwight, you need to distinguish at least two senses of "evolution" here. The sense in which it applies to stellar evolution is much more like the pre-Darwinian view that change at the macro level follows a developmental sequence (which is what "evolution" initially meant) that is both necessary and inherent in the developing system. It is almost nothing like Darwinian transmutation (the term Darwin preferred) that we now call "evolution". Darwinian evolution is not preprogrammed or proceeding according to set rules, as stellar evolution is.

By John Wilkins (not verified) on 05 Aug 2006 #permalink

AIUI Epicurus and Democritus, lacking any detailed knowledge of physics and chemistry, and thus lacking any way to talk about chemical laws in any robust sense, really did end up having to talk about "random collisions of atoms" to explain life, the universe, and everything.

I gather the Epicurean story, as related in Lucretius "On the Nature of Things" is that the void was filled with particles all falling in parallel. One swerved by accident, causing a cascade of collisions that form the world we now see. Chance appears only in that initial swerve, and only to explain why things didn't stay the same. It really is a deus ex machina in that sense. But it was not an explanation of everything subsequent to that which was based on chance - the properties of the particles do the hard work there.

By John Wilkins (not verified) on 06 Aug 2006 #permalink